When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew into Taiwan on Aug. 2, she became the highest ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island in 25 years. Her visit also lit the fuse on a weeks-long growing powder keg of an international confrontation with China that was entirely unnecessary. And now, in the wake of her visit, the world watches apprehensively as China plays out its displeasure through a series of military taunts and confrontational declarations that can lead to no good. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has been trying for years to isolate the island. The Chinese Communist Party claims that the self-governing democracy of Taiwan, which is home to 23 million people, is part of China. That is clearly wishful thinking, since Taiwan’s rule by Beijing in the last 125 years has been brief and weak. But China’s intentions are well known, and the island, slightly larger than Maryland, bristles under China’s domineering presence and threat.
Pelosi knew all of this when she planned her visit. And she knew that the mere announcement of her plans would escalate tensions between the United States and China. Taiwan has long been a hot button international relations issue, and it’s no secret that the United States supports an independent Taiwan. So there was nothing new in Pelosi’s triumphant declaration of American solidarity with Taiwan when she arrived. But why now? And why go through all of this in the face of clear reservations about the wisdom of the trip from President Joe Biden and his National Security Council?
Pelosi was also aware of the complex issues faced by the United States in its continuing efforts to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those include efforts to keep China from actively providing military and economic support for Russia as the U.S. helps orchestrate the Western response to Russia’s aggression. And, of course, there are multiple other concerns regarding things China could do to disrupt world order, if provoked.
Biden talked to China’s President Xi Jinping last week and, in a clear reference to perceived U.S. interference with Taiwan, Biden was told, “Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
On Aug. 4, China’s ambassador to the U.S. was summoned to the White House to receive formal protest over Beijing’s aggressive actions against Taiwan. That evening, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, walked out of a dinner at a diplomatic forum in Cambodia following criticism by the U.S. and other countries over China’s military exercises. Then on Aug. 5, China’s Foreign Ministry said that it would suspend talks with the U.S. on issues including climate change, military relations and anti-drug efforts.
U.S. allies have released statements condemning China’s military moves in response to Pelosi’s visit, but none has sought to defend the wisdom of her trip. In commenting upon the folly of the Speaker’s trip to Taiwan, a Washington Post editorial observed that “successful foreign policy combines high principle with smart, timely execution. [Pelosi’s visit] demonstrated the former — but not the latter.” We hope the miscalculation by Pelosi will not have lasting, negative implications.